Bill Long 11/24/06
Thanksgiving and Reflections on American Culture
Despite many social and cultural changes in America in the last 50 years, Thanksgiving remains one of the premier holidays of family get-togethers in American life. But the continuity of its celebration over the course of our lives, and the fact that the Detroit Lions usually lose on that day, belies the fact that Thanksgiving is a wonderful barometer to measure American cultural change in that same 50 years. Change can be seen in American travel patterns, athletics, leisure time, work and even what constitutes a "family" that gets together on that day. This and the next essay ruminate on change, using Thanksgiving and other Holidays as a window into the American psyche.
Thanksgiving--What it "Used" to Be
Let me begin with a story from the early 1960s. I grew up as the second of four boys in a pleasant family of six (mom, dad, four boys) in a CT suburb of NYC. My father's people hailed from Upstate NY, about 40 miles North of Utica. Each year we would take two trips to "C-Ville" (Constableville), one at Thanksgiving and one in the Spring/early Summer. On the first we would put up the storm windows and, during the second, we would take them down. We also would see cousins, uncles and aunts and friends of my father. I loved the vacations because they allowed me occasions to explore grandma's cavernous house and barns; I always thought that there was buried treasure somewhere in the attic or under the hay in the chicken coop, but, sadly, it was not to be.
One of the things I remember most vividly, however, were the family driving trips to C-Ville. It was, as my father told me, 256 miles, and we could get there by a variety of routes, though the most popular among us was driving the Taconic State Parkway to the Rip Van Winkle Bridge and then getting on the NY State Thruway to Utica. Normally we would make the Thanksgiving trip on Wednesday. My dad would get the day off from work, and we would pile into the car about 10 a.m., arriving by 5 p.m. at grandma's. One year, however, we had to go up on Thanksgiving Day itself. So, we left about 8 a.m., with grandma planning dinner late in the afternoon.
On this trip, however, we ran into a mechanical problem with our car. I don't know exactly where the car stalled, but we pulled over on the NY Thruway right next to the sign that said "Buffalo 330 miles." In fact, as a child, I was fascinated by the mileage signs that told you how far you were from various places. Because Buffalo was always so far away from where we were going, I never actually got there (I still haven't visited Buffalo), and I wondered as a child whether the city really existed.
Nevertheless, we pulled over to the side of the road, tied a handkerchief to the antenna--I forget which color, but one which told passing motorists that we were in distress--and waited. We had, of course, no cell phone or way of communicating with the outside world. The boys began to get restless, and my mother permitted us to play on a hilly embankment near where the car had stalled. I, however, recall just walking up to the sign which said "Buffalo 330 miles" and putting my hand on it, to see in fact if it was real.
What sticks in my memory that is relevant for this essay, however, is how few cars passed us in our distress. It was as if no one was out on the highway. I recall standing near the side of the road, scanning the highway in both directions and occasionally yelling, "Here comes a car...." because we knew that it was going to be through the good offices of a passing motorist or state trooper that we could be on our way. We must have sat there for two hours before a repair truck pulled up behind us and, eventually, got us on our way. A friendly motorist had stopped at the next town to tell the station owner that we were in distress. But the image that stands starkly in my mind is an empty New York State Thruway on Thanksgiving Day in the early 1960s.
Fast Forward To Today
My Thanksgiving reality "on the road" in 2006 couldn't have been more different. I think we now see Thanksgiving Day as a travel day in America, both because all the flights are full on the day before (and they are cheaper on Thanksgiving Day) and many of us take trips of about 200 or fewer miles to get to our family or friends celebration. For example, I went to visit friends yesterday about 30 miles north of my home in Salem, OR. I thought it would take me 35 minutes, the normal length of such a trip. Instead, I ran into stop and go traffic and occasional car pulled to the side of the road. It took me nearly an hour. My daughter, coming down from Seattle, expected the trip to Portland to take her three hours. After all, it was Thanksgiving; she could just breeze down I-5 like it was midnight. But it took her more than 4 1/2 hours, for the same reasons that slowed my trip. Granted, it was raining, and NW drivers, even though they run into rain all the time, still treat rain as a sort of unusual occurrence. I don't think our experience was unusual. All over America the Holidays themselves are seen as the perfect (or only) time to travel. We eventually get there, but then we have to get back, and the fun continues.
One of the ironies I noted in all this was that people are crazily traveling in huge numbers on Thanksgiving Day even while we increasingly go to a Thanksgiving week vacation rather than just having the day before Thanksgiving "off." In other words, more and more schools and businesses are closed for the entire Thanksgiving week, which should mean that people are less stressed or more free to travel at any time during the week. But it just isn't so. Maybe it is because there are so many more of us within these shores in 2006 than there were in 1963 (our population has nearly doubled in that time); but maybe also we are still trying to negotiate the difficult terrain between public and private space in our lives, between leisure and work and between family and solitude. In my mind, we live lives of tension and contradiction, lives that are lived at such a speed that we don't have time to reflect on how we are living. The next essay will explore these tensions a bit more thoroughly,
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long